By Hugh Barbour
Early Friends faced the daily job of recognizing the true from the subjective when they were led to speech and action. From Jeremiah’s time to the present, men have known no absolute or easy way to tell a genuinely divine message from wishful impulses and false prophecy.
The problem was made urgent for the Quakers because they were regularly labeled by men of their time as “Ranters.” The actual Ranters were a religious movement of the Seventeenth Century that superficially resembled the Friends and used much the same religious language. Ranters claimed that since they were redeemed and led by the Spirit, they could do no wrong, and so followed impulses into all kinds of immorality and anarchy. Some went further, saying that no man could be freed from a sin until he had committed that sin as if it were not a sin. Most of them felt they had found true faith or had been given a special prophetic call by God after a period of frustration in orthodox churches. Some were clearly psychotic.
It was therefore important for Quakers to know themselves, to find a basis for guiding and disciplining one another when necessary, and to explain to others how they differed from Ranters.
Moral purity. The first test for the genuineness of a leading was moral purity. Friends said that the Ranters “fled the cross,” and that the true Spirit was always contrary to self-will and led to righteousness. They applied this test within their own Meetings, and their austerity was certainly in contrast to the libertine habits of the Ranters.
Even condemnation of the impure was part of this test, “for the word of the Lord is pure,” wrote George Fox in a reference to Jeremiah 23:28, “and answers the pure in everyone . . . It is as a hammer to beat down the transgressor.”
Patience. As a second test, elders warned Friends to sit with their leadings for a while in patience. Self-will is impatient of tests. Fox wrote, “Be patient and still in the power and still in the light that doth convince you, keep your minds unto God . . . If you sit still in the patience which overcomes in the power of God, there will be no flying.”
Consistency with others. The third and most important test was likely to be the self-consistency of the Spirit. The Light should not contradict itself, either in history or among the members of the Spirit-led group.
Even the senior preachers submitted their directives to each others’ testing. In 1659 Thomas Aldam and William Dewsbury wrote to George Fox and Edward Burrough: “Take into your consideration the things written down in that power which came to me and W. Dew. at York and let me have an answer, how the large wisdom of God in you doth approve of the particular things to be done, and what it disapproves of, that in one Mind we may meet.”
From these casual ways of verifying each others’ leadings, there grew up in turn the uniform and practical organs of Quaker group life in Meetings for Business.
Consistency with the Bible. One strong means for using the consistency of the Spirit as a test for the validity of leadings was to compare them with biblical conduct.
Friends were never willing to use the Bible directly as a guidebook or rule book lest it substitute for each person’s own direct experience of the Light of Christ. In every area of life the Spirit must be absolute. But the Quakers, of course, believed that the biblical writers were also divinely inspired and that biblical teachings and prophecies were therefore proper to use for comparison. They were also willing for their opponents to test them by the Bible.
This agreement of the Spirit with the Bible was achieved more easily than it would be now, since early Friends were steeped in the Bible, quoted it unconsciously, and felt that it was the Spirit’s characteristic vocabulary.
Inward unity. The power of the Spirit to bring people into unity was one of the happy discoveries of the early Friends, and served as a final test of the guiding of the Light.
Friends have always needed to distinguish between “Openings” teaching them timeless truths, and “Call” experiences of individual guidance for specific tasks and decisions. Even the latter, however, were tested by early Friends against the discerning of other Friends, to guard against self-deception. For example, Thomas Stubbs, though his own work kept him in Northampton, spoke of feeling the call that had taken Edward Burrough and Francis Howgill to Ireland. At the same time he wrote to William Dewsbury, in prison for his faith, that he felt united to him in the will of the Lord.
Sharing the Spirit of God within them underlay the deepest of all Quaker experiences, the unspoken awareness of the unification of the group by the Spirit in the silent Meeting, where the whole body, and not primarily its individuals, received power, wisdom, and joy.
This leaflet is based on pages 119-123 of Hugh Barbour’s history, THE QUAKERS IN PURITAN ENGLAND, Yale University Press, 1964 (now available in paperback from Friends United Press.) The original includes footnotes and more examples.